Ms. Bourraine said the goal is to provide vacation options to potential tourists like the Haitian diaspora, although some fear their country’s insecurity. Bourraine said she had heard those in the generation before her say, “I’ll never step foot in Haiti again. I’ll never go back to that place.” However, Ms. Bourraine said the generation after that is very interested in seeing the country. “It’s just about making the connections and making those people feel safe and feel brave enough to venture out,” she said.
The waves weren’t high enough to surf on, so late that afternoon, I floated in the water just offshore. A deep blue sky was spotted with lazy clouds. All along the shoreline stood a thick forest of trees that extended out over the ocean. Nearby, a few children were skipping rocks, and people sat on the beach in twos and threes. I walked back to the hotel.
There was no electricity, so I took a shower in darkening shadow. When I walked onto the hotel’s veranda, the abundant tropical flowers glowed in the last rays of sun.
WE SET OFF on an epic drive the next day from Cayes-Jacmel on the southern coast to Cap-Haitian on the northern coast. The distance is relatively modest in absolute terms, about 193 miles. That this journey seems so intimidating is due to two factors -— Haiti’s mountainous interior and the lack of any bypass to avoid Port-au-Prince.
It ended up taking over 10 hours, through the mountains along the southern coast, down into the broad plain of Port-au-Prince, then due north until we climbed into the mountains of Haiti’s northern claw.
That evening, we unwound on the veranda of Cormier Plage, a beach hotel I had visited during my first assignment to the country. It is tucked between Cap Haitien and Labadee, a private beach resort closed-off peninsula leased by Royal Caribbean as a day stop for many of its cruise ships. At dinner, we sat in comfortable lounge chairs and listened to waves breaking on the beach only feet away. It was so dark that the lights above us shone like beacons. In the aftermath of that day’s drive, I felt optimistic and wondered out loud whether Haiti had turned a corner.
But Frantz shook his head doubtfully. Like Pierre Esperance and others of his generation, Frantz would not speculate about the future. They had witnessed so much: Jean-Claude Duvalier’s dictatorship, coups, armed gangs during Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s presidency, U.N. peacekeepers who brought cholera, all of it a lather of misery and instability that stretched over decades. I understood their reluctance to make predictions about their country.
To end my week, I visited Sans Souci Palace and the Citadel, a Unesco World Heritage complex and arguably Haiti’s first tourist attraction. Built in the early 18th century by Haiti’s founders, Unesco says the palace and the Citadel far above it “serve as universal symbols of liberty, being the first monuments to be constructed by black slaves who had gained their freedom.”
Only skeletal walls remain of Sans Souci Palace, which was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1842. However, the Citadel still looks every bit as impressive as the statistics cited about it -— largest fortress in the Western Hemisphere, filled with original, French, English and Haitian built cannons, walls 13 feet thick and 131 feet tall. It took 20,000 people 14 years to build it.
This complex has been a tourist attraction for a long time. In 1937, The New York Times announced a new steamship service that would make the Citadel more accessible. “The main offering of the new tourist service is the chance of visiting the famous citadel, La Ferriere, sometimes rated among the ten wonders of the world.”
My tour guide was Nicolas Antoine, a 62-year-old who has been showing people around the complex for 25 years. When he began, Antoine said, the Citadel was in poor shape, abandoned, with trees growing on and inside its walls. The task of ferrying up tourists was given to sure-footed donkeys climbing through scrub. His description reminded me of the current condition of Fort Anglais on the southern coast, another impressive site in a country filled with them.
The complex was truly spectacular, a testament to Haiti’s world-changing struggle for independence. When we arrived, it was late morning, blindingly hot and humid. I stepped across a crumbling wall of Sans Souci Palace into a field of tall grass. Chattering from the village of Milot below rose through the air. Facing me, on the other side of the village, was a steep mountain slope covered with rubber, mahogany, mango and palm trees. I greedily drank in the view. Haiti’s struggle with deforestation is well known, making these types of unadulterated visions of nature all the more precious.
Turning in the other direction, I noticed a young man sitting nearby, intently staring at a piece of paper, his lips moving as if in prayer. I asked him what he was doing. He was studying for an economics test. In the distance stood a large school building, and I heard the chant of students repeating lessons.
This moment occupied my thoughts on the climb up to the Citadel and while walking through the fortress’s cool, mist-wreathed corridors. Finally, I realized why it resonated so strongly. I had witnessed a normal Tuesday morning: school, studying for a test, daily chatter, guides, shopkeepers looking for tourists, and tourists looking at the sights. It could have been any tourist destination anywhere in the world. But this time, it was in Haiti.
Like many who have filtered through the country, I held memories of Haiti that were complicated, any happiness diluted by the things I lived through. But near the end of my road trip, in a grassy field alongside Sans Souci Palace, the power of these memories receded a bit. A new narrative began, in which it wasn’t brave or unusual to see Haiti’s sights, to eat its food, to interact with the people I came across, and to be a tourist. It was normal.
At the Cap Haitien airport the next day, the waiting area was new and well maintained. As I waited for the flight, I thought about the last moments of our road trip and about saying goodbye to Frantz. We had stood in the airport parking lot under the shade of a big yellow school bus and ate lunch his mother had prepared for us -— Creole sauce, pan-fried fish, pickled vegetables, and Haitian rice. It was so delicious that I can still taste it. When we were done, he drove me to the departure area. I gave Frantz a picture I had recently come across. It was the two of us 17 years ago, on one of our first road trips through the country. Saying goodbye felt like the end of an era, one that expressed itself through silence rather than words.
In the airport waiting area, the lights flickered and went out. The fast descending tropical sun threw broad shadows across the walls, but unlike past moments, I did not assume the worst. I figured the lights would come back on, and soon they did.